Education helps workers fight gender-based violence in Tanzania’s flower industry

Pili Msabaha walking in the greenhouse and looking after the production. Though her workplace has considerably improved the conditions for women, she now hopes that the practices put in place will spread to other farms around the country. Arusha, Tanzania, on 12 December 2017. Photo: Sam Vox

Gender and labour rights education is proving to be successful in horticulture industry in Tanzania.

Arusha, Arusha Region, Tanzania

Every year, tons of flowers are cultivated, exported and offered as gifts around the world. This symbol of romance, friendship and solidarity, displayed from weddings to funerals, has become an international business worth roughly US$100 billion annually.

Cultivating these flowers are thousands of workers who often toil under harsh conditions – especially in warm southern countries where many farms are located – to serve an increasing demand for export to countries like the United States, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

In Tanzania, floriculture has become an important industry, employing thousands of workers.

Women make up to 60 per cent of this workforce. However, in recent years, there have been several reports of harassment, intimidation, sexual violence and other forms of gender-based violence.

This comes at a time of increasing awareness, in the world of work, of the difficulties faced by women just because of their gender. It is also helping to shape the discussion around a new International Labour Organization (ILO) convention that could help unions, employers and governments do their utmost to deal with violence in and around the workplace.

Photojournalist Sam Vox traveled to Kili Frora, Mt.Meru and Dekker Bruins flower farms in Arusha and Moshi to meet some of Tanzania’s female flower workers and talk about their issues.

While most of them confirmed reports of harassment and discrimination, they also said that the situation improved in some places over the years thanks to one thing mainly: education.

Through seminars and information sessions, often organised by the Tanzania Plantations and Agriculture Workers Union, women have become more aware of their rights and less afraid of reporting cases of gender-based violence. A receptive management is also essential, these women say.

Flower farm workers on their way to work after their daily lunch break. Many of these women complain about the working conditions and gender-based violence that takes place under these greenhouses. Dekker Bruins Flower Farms in Moshi, Tanzania, on 15 December 2017. Photo: Sam Vox/EqualTimes

This farm is a leading exporter of chrysanthemum flowers. It is also a place where harassment against women is widespread. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one woman tells Equal Times: “It’s become a very ugly environment for women. This is all caused by one man, our manager. We all know about it and it’s not a secret anymore. He has sexually harassed a lot of young women and there’s nothing we can do about it. If you are young and beautiful, you become his target. He promises young girls a better work position and also an end-of-year bonus in exchange for sex.”

Another worker complained about the lack of mechanisms put in place to deal with these issues.

“We had women who stood up for women’s rights but as a result they got fired. This does not help in building a good relationship or confidence with the women in the farms. No one will stand up against the management since everyone is afraid. We do not have a proper system where we can report any sort of harassment.”

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The majority of workers in these greenhouses are women and their work requires from them to be bent down for up to 10 hours a day. The chrysanthemum flowers they cultivate are then packaged and shipped abroad before they blossom. Depending on the clients order, chrysanthemums come in different colours. Each greenhouse has serial numbers indicating what flower is cultivated. Dekker Bruins Flower Farms in Moshi, Tanzania, on 15 December 2017. Photo: Sam Vox/EqualTimes

When women bend down to cultivate flowers, they often feel like the men who work in the production or as security guards stare at them in improper ways. In one case reported toEqual Times: “A woman had flowers in her hand and as she bent over to put them in the basket the security guard grabbed her buttocks. The woman was shocked about what had just happened. The security guard then tried to put his hand into the woman’s coat to grab her breasts. The woman panicked and asked him to stop. She took her basket and moved away from the security guard, but he followed her and insulted her. He verbally abused her because she refused to be touched by him.”

One of the inspectors at Dekker Bruins checks if the flower picks are the right size and mature enough for processing. Fueled by an increasing demand, workers now have to work longer and harder hours, despite a salary that is barely enough to make ends meet. Dekker Bruins Flower Farms in Moshi, Tanzania, on 15 December 2017. Photo: Sam Vox/EqualTimes

During holiday seasons, and ahead of Valentine’s Day, production demands spike and workers are often required to meet unrealistic demands.

The average monthly salary on the farm is 130,000 shillings (US$58). Bonuses of up to 32,000 shillings (US$15) can also be paid if workers manage to exceed their job requirements. Some women often miss their lunch breaks or eat at the farms just to save up time and work for the extra bonus, even though it is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve. Even with that, one worker tells Equal Times: “That’s hardly enough to last you a month. We have to pay rent, transport to work and with the same money we support our families. There’s nothing to save, it’s too little for us to live on, most of us have debts with grocery stores where we loan basic house necessities, such as rice and sugar.”

Pili Msabaha has been a flower grower at Mt. Meru Flower Farms for seven years. She is also the chairperson of the women’s committee, which deals with the problems specifically affecting women in the workplace. Arusha, Tanzania, on 12 December 2017. Photo: Sam Vox/EqualTimes

Pili says a lot has changed regarding discrimination and harassment since she started working on the farm, thanks to information sessions on labour and women’s rights, as well as a more receptive management. According to Pili: “One of the biggest challenges was to get women to understand that any sort of harassment is not acceptable, be it physical or verbal. Once they understood this, the next step was to get them to speak up when it happens. It’s been difficult for women to come forward because a lot of them fear they would lose their jobs. Every one of us depends on these jobs to care and support our families. It’s hurtful to see women getting harassed but even more hurtful when they are afraid to take any action against it.”

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Pili strongly believes that education plays a vital role. Most of the women only report sexual harassment but ignore other forms of gender-based discrimination. “The most important job here is to provide education and have a board that supports us so that women feel confident to come forward and speak up whenever they are discriminated in any way,” she tells Equal Times.

Noely Paulo works in the post-harvest area at Mt. Meru Flower Farms. He has been with the company for 10 years. Noely is also a member of the women’s committee, and part of his work there consists of educating men on work ethics, especially on the topic of harassment. With new employees hired every month, Noely has to repeat the process time and again. Arusha, Tanzania, on 12 December 2017. Photo: Sam Vox

Noely believes that men, as the perpetrators of gender-based violence, are part of the solutions to bring about an end to this problem on the farms. “I volunteer my time to teach my fellow men about laws and rules in the work place. When I teach, I always bring up the subject of harassment, I make sure that they are all aware that it’s a crime by law and that they could easily lose their job if they are caught.”

He adds: “Some women are scared to speak up or take any action when they are getting harassed, but we encourage bystanders who witness it to report to the committee or even the management. Some of these women are so embarrassed to report any sort of harassment, especially when it is sexual harassment. They keep it to themselves and that affects them and their work. In the committee, there is a system to follow up such cases and get the women to open up. We sometimes move the women to different farms so they can work in peace while we follow up their report.”

Aside from having to bend for hours on end, women feel that health and maternity issues are not correctly taken into account by management. Some pregnant women have been forced to continue picking flowers, while older women are not given less strenuous work.

“Pregnant women do not get extra resting time,” one worker says. “They put in the same hours of work just like everyone else. It’s very saddening to see, especially in the early morning when the farms have just been sprayed with strong pesticides and workers have to start work before the fumes even disappear.”

The dire economic situation in these regions, combined with family responsibilities, have forced women to accept these conditions. Unions therefore believe that an important part of their work is to convince women to group together to claim better rights.

Khadija Ramadhani, 45 years old, works at Kili Flora Nursery Project. Farms like these experiment new types of flowers in small batches to see how well they grow. If approved, they are then moved to the bigger greenhouses for large scale growing. Arusha, Tanzania, on 12 December 2017. Photo: Sam Vox

Aside from having to bend for hours on end, women feel that health and maternity issues are not correctly taken into account by management. Some pregnant women have been forced to continue picking flowers, while older women are not given less strenuous work.

“Pregnant women do not get extra resting time,” one worker says. “They put in the same hours of work just like everyone else. It’s very saddening to see, especially in the early morning when the farms have just been sprayed with strong pesticides and workers have to start work before the fumes even disappear.”

The dire economic situation in these regions, combined with family responsibilities, have forced women to accept these conditions. Unions therefore believe that an important part of their work is to convince women to group together to claim better rights.

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